Bradley Wright-Phillips always has been one tough striker to stop. (Outfoxed Media Photo)
By Michael Lewis
When the Major League Soccer schedule was set months ago, little did anyone realize the multiple significance the LA Galaxy-Red Bulls game this Sunday would have.
Of course, there’s the never-ending New York-Los Angeles rivalry.
We also have two teams with high profile stars vying for playoff berths – the Galaxy, which is tied with the Seattle Sounders for the Western Conference lead and the Supporters Shield honors and the Red Bulls, who are trying to clinch their fifth consecutive postseason berth.
Then there’s the final meeting between two legends of the game — Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry. Donovan has announced he is calling it quits after this season and Henry, 37, in the final year of a five-year contract, hasn’t made up his mind yet — or least hasn’t made an announcement about it yet.
Then, there’s a fourth component to the game that no one saw coming months ago — a man on the brink of shattering a league record that has stood since the very first MLS season in 1996.
With only five games remaining in the regular season, Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips is only three goals shy of tying the mark set by Roy Lassiter when he terrorized opposing goalkeepers with the Tampa Bay Rowdies 18 years ago and equaled by U.S. international striker Chris Wondolowski with the San Jose Earthquakes only two years ago.
Others have come tantalizing close, but no one has exceeded that magic number of 27 goals in a season. Given his consistency and uncanny ability to score goals this season, if Wright-Phillips doesn’t set a record, it will be quite surprising.
Whether he can accomplish it against a quality side such as the Galaxy is another matter, considering the hosts are difficult to beat and score against at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.
BWP is having one of the greatest seasons in the 19-year history of the league (if the English striker can finish with 28 goals or greater, we’ll eliminate “one of” from the previous sentence.
Some critics might say Wright-Phillips is enjoying such a career year due to the presence of Henry, who has set up him for nine goals. Well, that is true — to a certain extent. Henry has been kicking around MLS since 2010 and while teammates have taken advantage of his presence, great vision and uncanny knack of putting the ball in the right place at the right time, no one scored more than 18 goals in a season (Kenny Cooper in 2012).
Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Henry’s presence in the lineup allows BWP many quality chances. Earlier this year Henry said that his teammate should have had 41 goals because he has missed so many. Perhaps, but that doesn’t diminish from Wright-Phillips’ accomplishment of 24 goals.
Besides, if it was easy to score goals, former U.S. international and MLS standout Ante Razov once said, then everyone would be doing it.
It might be difficult to say if Wright-Phillips was born to be a goal-scorer, but he certainly was born with the genes to be one — as the son of former Arsenal great Ian Wright. In case you don’t know or care about soccer history, Wright tallied an impressive 128 goals in 221 games for the London club before Henry began his legendary run at Highbury and Emirates Stadium.
Former Red Bulls goalkeeper and U.S. National Hall of Famer Tony Meola, who stoned Wright in a historic U.S. 2-0 upset of England in 1993, has watched the exploits of the strikers son this season.
“He’s doing a great job,” he said in a recent interview. “For me, the MVP this year, the goal-scorer they needed for the year. Certainly, they have to put themselves in a better position. But he’s been great for him all year.”
Meola said he was most impressed with Wright-Phillips’ “nose for goal, his desire to always get the goal. His face is obvious something that sticks out right away when you watch the play; just his ability to score goals. Goal-scorers are streaky to me. You get in a slump and like anything else. He’s knocked down that slump this year. He’s been pretty fun to watch.”
The numbers Wright-Phillips has put up this season have been staggering. Even if he doesn’t score another goal — which would be quite surprisingly considering his resilience and ability to bounce back from the rare time has has been shut out — he has carved out a but of his own MLS history.
A quick look at his exploits this season:
As a late-match substitute for Peguy Luyindula in the 4-1 season-opening loss at the Vancouver Whitecaps March 8, Wright-Phillips pulled one back for the visitors a minute into stoppage time. Then he endured a personal, 447-minute scoreless drought over six consecutive matches before breaking out in style via a hat-trick in a 4-0 home rout of the Houston Dynamo April 23 and BWP was off to the races. He scored in four consecutive games including yet another three-goal performance in a 5-4 defeat to the Chicago Fire May 10, which gave him a stunning eight goals in four games over 18 days.
You want more?
He is tied with former LA Galaxy great and Guatemalan international striker Carlos Ruiz for sixth place on the MLS all-time list with 24 goals apiece. He broke two Red Bulls scoring records this season. He surpassed Juan Pablo Angel’s record 19 goals in 2007 for goals in a league season and moved past Aldolfo Valencia’s mark of 21 goals scored in all competitions in a season in 2000. He scores a goal once every 88.91 minutes. He has converted all five of his penalty kicks this season.
The Red Bulls are 7-4-5 when BWP scores a goal, which in many ways explains the weaknesses of the team.
And in case you were wondering, he has only one assist this season, ironically off Henry’s equalizing goal in a 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake July 30.
After his most recent magnificent performance against Seattle Saturday night — a hat-trick in a 4-1 triumph — I asked Wright-Phillips whether he was having fun. His answer was, well, stunning.
“I’m getting kicked every weekend, so it hasn’t been too much fun,” he said. “After the game is a lot of fun.”
Foes have played Wright-Phillips a lot more aggressively.
“I don’t have the body for that, I don’t think they need that much aggression for me,” he said. “I’m not strong or anything.”
But he has a knack for well, being in the proverbial right place at the right time.
“If you are good in front of the goal it easy for you to finish, and if you see today in the three goals he scored today it’s those things,” Sounders defender Djimi Traore said. “He didn’t do something special. He was just in the right position to finish.”
When he joined the Red Bulls last season, no one had an inkling that Wright-Phillips would become a scoring machine and break records.
In a word, he struggled in his MLS debut season, connecting but once in 337 minutes over four starts and seven regular season games. He added a goal in the doomed playoff series against the Dynamo.
“Honestly, I don’t think last season was too bad,” Wright-Phillips said. “I came to a new team, a couple of goals. I wasn’t starting every week, so I enjoyed it last season.”
It took a while before the 5-8, 158-lb. striker could start enjoying this season. Observers might have forgotten he did not have the most memorable starts back in March.
“Bradley having an incredible season,” Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “We knew last year when he was on trial with us that he had the technical ability. It was just a matter of time of him getting used to the league, just the standard that’s here. He’s done a great job of adapting. He worked hard during preseason. I know Mike [Petke, the head coach] made some comments about he had a rough preseason, but that goes to show the type of character because things weren’t going that great. He continued to put the work in. He was always asking to take more shots after practice. I obliged, no problem and now it’s paying off. He’s saved us so many times and we’re just kind of glad we can ride his coat-tails with these performances. Everyone’s very grateful he’s on our team and not going against him.”
Robles has played with and against Wright-Phillips in training and he would rather have the striker on his side. The goalkeeper said what you see in training from the striker is what you get in games.
“For the most part he’s exactly like what you see on the field, a very calm demeanor, confident in what he does,” he said. “But he’s there for a goal. He makes his living inside the 18 and the thing that I really appreciate about him is that he just can kind of rest and say ‘OK, I am doing the thing I need to do, so I don’t need to work hard.’ But when you have him on a small-sided team, you don’t think he’s going to take a break. That just continues to show what kind of person he is. Not only a type of player he is, but the person he is. He’s just not dogging it because of what he has accomplished this season. He continues to work hard. That’s a great example, not only for every player, but especially the young players.”
With five precious games remaining in the Red Bulls’ regular season as they pursue a playoff spot, Wright-Phillips has moved within striking distance of Lassiter and Wondo.
“Sorry, I don’t really want to talk about the record,” he said. “We haven’t clinched a playoff place yet, so that’s a bit selfish. I just want to clinch a playoff spot.”
But Wright-Phillips obviously has many people rooting for him to break the record. And some pf those people in his corner could be a bit surprising.
“He definitely has a good chance at it,” Wondolowski told me this summer. “He has been playing really well. He can continue to do it. I think he has a very high chance of doing it. I hope he does. Credit to him. He has been played very well. He deserves it.”
Regardless what transpires, BWP has enjoyed a fabulous season. If he does win the MLS Golden Boot, there might be more spoils ahead for him, such as the MVP
Wright-Phillips certainly has support from the Red Bulls camp. Of course, they are biased considering he has taken the team on its back and put it in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a 10-8-11 record and 41 points, a point behind the New England Revolution and a point ahead of the Columbus Crew.
“I challenge anybody who votes to go back and look at Bradley — the games when he got here last year to watch every game,” Petke said. “I guarantee you’ll see an improvement. It’s little things and big things as well. It’s about the goals. He’s a striker. He broke our record and he’s going for the record. So of course, [everyone] looks at the goals but if you look at the whole of Bradley Wright-Phillips, you’ll see a huge improvement in his play, doing things that help us out tremendously. i think he’s definitely worth of being in the conversation, sure.”
Teammate and midfielder Dax McCarty took it a few steps further.
“There have been some great performances this year,” he said. “A lot of players have been very good, defenders, midfielders. Forwards get all the glory. Forwards score the goals. They make the big bucks. Bradley’s no different. Of course, Wondolowski won the MVP tying the record. I have no doubts in my mind that he’s going to break the record. So it’s an obvious choice.”
Bradley Wright-Phillips needs three more goals to tie, four to break, Wondo and Lassiter’s record.
Given his outstanding performance this season, it would not be wise to bet against him.